Why HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” is difficult—and necessary—to watch
An hour into “Leaving Neverland,” HBO’s new four-hour miniseries in which two men allege that the deceased pop star Michael Jackson molested them for the better part of a decade, I found myself wondering just how much more I could take. Director Dan Reed, who interviewed the men and members of their family, had decided to take the approach of not simply laying out a set of accusations, or presenting “true crime” re-enactments with maps and conversations with police officers.
Instead, he asks Mr. Jackson’s accusers, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, and their families to walk us through the entirety of their relationships with Mr. Jackson: idolizing him from afar as very young children; the circumstances through which they first met him, when Mr. Safechuck was 10 and Mr. Robson 7; and the ways those relationships developed, both for them and their families. Then and only then, with that context patiently, gently established, the men recount the years of sexual acts Mr. Jackson began to teach them to perform, both upon themselves and him.
In its own quiet way, this is a far more uncomfortable approach for the viewer. By the time we get to the abuse, we have come to identify with these two men. The director’s approach also demonstrates how much the sexual abuse was married to a sense of awe and devotion to Mr. Jackson, who made his victims feel special. Even as Mr. Safechuck and Mr. Robson are telling their stories as adults, those deeply mixed feelings seem to continue. Mr. Safechuck says they were “like this married couple—and I say married because we had this mock wedding ceremony.” He then shows the ring, which he still has and, for a moment, almost looks ready to put back on.
Their families were also drawn into Mr. Jackson’s process of grooming, often flown out to follow the star on tour. The parents were told, when Mr. Jackson seemed especially desperate, that they were his only friends. “You feel sorry for him,” explains Mr. Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie. “You honestly do believe this is a lonely man, and we can help make him happy. Us, who are just nobodies.”
In the end, the real power of “Neverland” lies in the willingness of these victims to walk us through the whole experience they and their families went through.
Mr. Robson’s mother, Joy, developed such a strong personal bond with Mr. Jackson that she eventually moved with Wade and her daughter Chantal from Australia to Los Angeles to be closer to him, leaving her husband and eldest son, Shane, behind and effectively ending their family. Speaking about what Mr. Jackson had done to her son, which she and her family say they were completely oblivious of until 2013, Ms. Robson says, “Maybe I can forgive him at some point if I tried to understand that he was sick. But forgiving myself is another thing. I don’t know if I will ever do that.”
Mr. Safechuck admitted, on a special with Oprah Winfrey on HBO that followed the airing of the first part of the miniseries, that he felt guilty. “I felt guilt this weekend—like I let him down. It’s still there. The shadow’s still there.”
In the end, the real power of “Neverland” lies in the willingness of these victims to walk us through the whole experience they and their families went through. Their stories demonstrate the contours of grooming and seduction in a way that no news report on these issues can. The series demonstrates how children are trained by abusers to engage in sexual activity without ever questioning it, and how, even decades later, victims struggle to accept that this kind of relationship is not loving but abusive, and that they are not to blame.
For both Mr. Robson and Mr. Safechuck, the turning point was not other allegations of abuse. Each denied being abused in court testimony after Mr. Jackson was accused by the parent of another child in 1993; both were still children themselves at the time, and Mr. Jackson ended up settling with the accuser for $23 million. Nor was it getting married (neither confided in their spouses) or the death of Mr. Jackson in 2009. They finally began to question what had happened to them when they each had sons of their own.
“Neverland” offers no easy answers, which is fitting as these issues clearly lie deep in our cultural subconscious.
Mr. Robson describes having thoughts of Mr. Jackson doing to his son Koa the things he had done to Mr. Robson. “And my immediate emotional reaction to having those images is just this rage and disgust, violent feeling. I would kill anyone who did anything like that to Koa.” It forced him to wonder: What does that say about what Mr. Jackson had done to him as a child? “You see how innocent kids are,” explains Mr. Safechuck. And the abuse symptoms “ramp up even more.”
Some question why victims like Mr. Safechuck and Mr. Robson continue to be forced to go into what they experienced in such brutal detail. Nylah Burton, a sexual abuse survivor writing in Vulture, fears that works like the HBO series “actually serve as extensions of our victim-blaming society…. [Such documentaries] anticipate and answer all our invasive questions, disregarding the pain that it clearly causes the survivors.… they must emotionally impact us in order to be believed.”
It is a fair point; certainly, there was a great detail of information about Mr. Jackson already out there, including a 2013 interview with Mr. Robson on “The Today Show.” And yet presentations of these issues on television programs like “Today” or “The View” demonstrate why a format like HBO’s is needed. Cable news series or morning shows cannot offer meaningful, deeper exploration when exploring issues like sexual abuse. And to the extent that we allow such outlets to form the basis of our reflection—and so often we do—we turn trauma into spectacle and impoverish our own capacity to understand these issues.
Consider just how quickly allegations and revelations like these turn to the question “But can we still like their art?” It is not an inherently empty question; behind it may sit the anxiety of participating in evil. But the alacrity with which we make the move from important and horrifying new information to anxiety about our Netflix queues can seem pathological in its narcissism. Listen to whatever you want; I bet it won’t sound the same, but in the end, does it really matter?
Anyone watching “Leaving Neverland” should come away with one fundamental question, and for Catholics, it is a familiar one: How did we not see this coming? How did we not see that this man who was weirdly obsessed with children, who slept many nights in the same bed with children without other adults present, who had been accused of molestation twice and actually paid out tens of millions on one case, was almost certainly a serial pedophile? Even now, after decades of stories from every aspect of our society, we continue to have a massive cultural blindspot when it comes to abuse. It is as though we, like Mr. Robson, Mr. Safechuck and their families, have somehow been trained to not see what is right in front of us, to look away or create false narratives. How is that mechanism with us? And how do we change it?
“Neverland” offers no easy answers, which is fitting as these issues clearly lie deep in our cultural subconscious. The best it can do, the opportunity that it offers, is to draw us patiently into that place of discomfort where we might begin to question our assumptions. If we can force ourselves not to cut and run.